Workrooms, long considered the Cinderella of the industry, toiling away with not nearly enough reward, are waking up to the importance of their role in the soft coverings industry. The rest of the industry is beginning to notice as well.
In years past the mainstay of workrooms were small operations, often one-woman operations working out of their homes. These individuals and small companies quietly processed the bulk of all the decorator fabrics that retailers could sell and mills could produce. Many working into their senior years and some well into their 80s, they kept a steady supply of custom products in the pipeline. However, with the aging population of existing workrooms and the lack of training in the art of sewing in the general population, workrooms are indeed becoming in short supply.
THE GREAT RAVINE
Often described as a “link in the chain” of the soft coverings industry, people are now realizing that that analogy is not quite on target. A better description for workrooms would be a bridge—a bridge over a cavernous ravine. One side of the ravine holds raw materials. Mills produce fabric that does not gain value until it passes through the hands of a craftsman. Skillful hands turn it into a finished product. Jobbers distribute the fabric, which must flow through the hands of a fabricator. And a whole array of companies provides everything from hardware to sewing supplies to machinery and tools for use in fabrication of custom products. Everyone involved in the production and sale of raw materials stands on one side of the great ravine.
On the other side stand the retail customer, the retailer/decorator/designer and the installer. Bridging the gap between the two is an ever-shrinking supply of workrooms. In the world of soft coverings, all commerce flows over that narrowing bridge.
The age of workroom craftspeople accounts for part of the reason why the bridge is narrowing and, of course, the lack of sewing skills in the general public is another. At one time the craft of sewing was necessary and common. Almost every household owned a sewing machine because of the high cost of domestically produced clothing. Imports have changed all of that. Now it is cost effective to buy most clothing off the rack.
When it is less expensive to buy clothing than it is to make clothing it spells trouble for the home sewing industry and, as a result, trouble for the window coverings industry as well. The exporting of sewing factories overseas also tells new entrants into the job market that sewing jobs are dead-end or non-existent. Hence, the pool of skilled employees or even non-skilled people considering careers in the workroom is shrinking with each passing year.
There are other factors at work, however. Namely, the tendency of the industry at large not to value the workroom as it should. When it is difficult to make a living wage while fabricating soft coverings, the natural result is burnout and workrooms going under. Many talented newcomers enter the field and soon become discouraged and move on to other endeavors. While those would-be workrooms look back from afar on the experience they left, what they see is an industry with one less entity to produce products. The fact is, fewer workrooms doesn’t hurt the workroom industry. It hurts those left standing on either side of the bridge trying to move products.
Additionally, workrooms are called upon to do things as a service (which doesn’t produce income) and, in fact, cause the workroom to take on unnecessary risk. Often, workroom personnel are asked to measure, make deliveries and provide on-the-job training for wholesale clients. All of these activities are often provided as a service in order to win business and to retain the loyalty of the wholesale clients. None of these activities are the prime moneymaking activities associated with the workroom and can be counterproductive.
As the pool of workrooms shrinks, these services are going to have to go away or be well compensated. Any service that takes the skilled artisan away from the primary task of fabrication is wasteful when the goal is producing product. Additionally, with workrooms becoming scarcer, the need to provide peripheral services to retain wholesale clients is becoming less necessary. We are moving into an era when designers will be fortunate to be associated with a skilled local workroom. Others will be relegated to using large impersonal workrooms. While using these large workrooms that are some distance away is an option, shipping costs associated with this practice puts the designer behind in the competitive price arena, not to mention the loss of control associated with shipping fabrics and products rather than issuing work orders face-to-face. Designers will be guarding their local workroom source as closely as they value and guard their installers.
With this trend in the works, it looks like Cinderella may indeed get to come to the ball. As players on both sides of the bridge wake up to the fact that they have a hand in the success or failure of workrooms, what happens to workrooms will determine the course of the industry for years to come. From the raw materials side, everything possible needs to happen to support training for new people coming into the industry. On the retail side, training for designers and retailers in how to relate to workrooms to help them turn out the correct product the first time is essential. Re-dos because of poorly written work orders and time spent in work order clarification soak up valuable production time.
Retailers, including decorators and designers, need training in the art of preparing the customer. As lead times become longer and longer, workrooms need customer expectations to match what they feasibly can produce with the quality expected. Working long hours with little respect or consideration is a prime cause of burnout in the workroom. And right now the industry doesn’t need more burnout, it needs all hands on deck.
Additionally, retailers and suppliers alike are going to have to come to grips with longer lead times as longer lead times affect cash flow. When retailers take a 50 percent deposit and have a 25 to 35 percent profit margin, the gap has to be filled with better money management when products cannot be turned quick enough to collect the balance in 30 or 45 days. Pressuring the workrooms for quicker turnaround is one option, but one that will contribute to more burnout and the vicious cycle will continue. Training for retailers in money management is essential to help bridge that gap.
Workrooms are noticing the power of the bridge and are beginning to set their own policies to address some of the problems that are on the horizon. But other parts of the industry need to come to the party as well. They definitely will want to be invited to Cinderella’s ball.
Mary Ann Plumlee is the owner of a retail and wholesale workroom. Starting with only $50 and a home sewing machine in 1985, her business has expanded to include a showroom, 12 employees and two locations. She firmly believes that in this business only the tough survive. Finding the humor in the everyday life of a “curtainlady” is how she not only has survived, but thrived in this industry. Plumlee is often seen traveling around the country teaching classes and seminars. She is the author of The Adventures of Curtain Lady and has launched a workroom related blog: www.workroomintelligence.com.